June 6, 2021

On Failure, Diatoms, and the Bones of Elisha

I was watching Will Smith explain the journey of sand on the One Strange Rock documentary series when I first heard about diatoms. Every year, tons of Saharan dust are lifted by winds and carried on an epic 6,000-mile (9,650-kilometer) journey across the Atlantic and into the heart of the Amazon region of Brazil. 

It turns out that this nutrient-rich dust is what feeds the Amazon, replenishing it with phosphorus and other fertilizers. Without the Saharan dust, the Amazon region would not survive. 

But wait a minute: How is it possible for a desert to fertilize a rainforest? What makes Saharan dust so nutrient-rich? The answer is carcasses! The carcasses of diatoms, to be precise.

Diatoms are microscopic, unicellular algae. Despite their miniscule size, they have a huge role: they produce about 50 percent of the air we breathe — talk about a thankless job! Diatoms can be found all over the world, in the oceans, in freshwater, and even on damp surfaces. 

Surprisingly, the Sahara was once a lush oasis filled with lakes where billions of diatoms lived. After blooming, these diatoms died and sank to the bottom of the lakes. But unlike other algae, diatoms do not decay, because their cell walls are made up of silica. As a result, diatoms’ “skeletons” accumulated at the bottom. When the lakes dried up, it exposed the diatoms’ shells, allowing the wind to completely rewrite their story.

How do you define success? When dreams dry up and oases become deserts, I am often too quick to label those experiences as “failures.” I tend to be in a rush for quantifiable results. But I am not about to tell you that time and patience can radically transform your story. That’s true, of course, but it is not the main point. 

The point is that, as Christians, we have a far better definition of success. Success is not simply the outcome but the journey itself. In the kingdom of God, to be faithful is to be successful. We are called to do our best, trusting in God for the outcome. This allows us to anchor our identities on much firmer ground than success or achievements. 

As a result, when faced with apparent failure, we do not despair. “I replied, ‘But my work seems so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose. Yet I leave it all in the Lord’s hand; I will trust God for my reward’ ” (Isaiah 49:4, NLT, emphasis supplied). To start looking through the lens of faithfulness rather than accomplishment, we must learn the art of seeing the unseen.

At first glance, the death of the prophet Elisha seems utterly anticlimactic and ironic. The same man God used to heal so many was lying helpless in bed. The prophet who brought back to life the son of the widow of Zarephath was succumbing to a common illness. While his predecessor, Elijah, was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, there were no fanfares for Elisha. He had asked for a double portion of God’s spirit, but his last recorded act was getting angry at King Jehoash for his lack of faith (2 Kings 13:19). Was his career as a prophet a failure? Of course not; Elisha was faithful

To give us a glimpse into the unseen, the Bible records an unusual story. Sometime after the death of Elisha, a group of Israelites was burying a man. Suddenly they saw a band of Moabite raiders, and, terrified, they threw the body into the first tomb they found. It happened to be Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man returned to life (2 Kings 13:20, 21). 

I love this story because it powerfully illustrates that God takes care of the outcomes. Elisha was dead and buried; he knew nothing and could do nothing. But we serve a God who can work miracles with dry bones and diatoms’ carcasses. So, without Elisha even lifting a finger, God completely rewrote his story. 

God calls us to be faithful, not successful. Consider how much grace there is in that calling. God is removing the burden of success from our shoulders and placing it upon Himself (Matthew 11:29). He is inviting us to focus on the unseen, to anchor ourselves in Him. 

Don’t let the circumstances fool you. The ultimate outcomes are always in God’s hands. Be faithful! The wind of His Spirit can carry aloft the dry remains of your dreams and use them to fertilize a green and lush paradise far away. Even after you are gone, God can use your example of faith and obedience to revitalize others. Let us be faithful.

Vanesa Pizzuto coordinates mission projects for the Trans-European Division.